Developing Leadership Savoir-Faire: What B-Schools Can Do for Graduates

In today’s world, Business Schools have assumed an importance far beyond their role in earlier times. They are now chief suppliers of students essential to economic development. These graduates bring basic knowledge necessary for the functioning of organizations, leadership skills, and confidence to perform an increasing portion of the ever-more demanding jobs in the technologically sophisticated, global economy.

Navigating the uncharted waters of worldwide business is disconcerting for prepared adults, but even more so for those entering the workforce. Because of the key role that B-School graduates will play in society in the near future, many have a stake in their education. Parents, employers, and communities are increasingly asking, if not subtly grumbling, if B-School graduates are trained for the jobs of the future or of the past?

Much ink has been spilled on B-School rankings as indicators of success. Less effort has been invested in curriculum discussions of how B-School faculty should prepare students to cope with leadership challenges they will face entering the business world. As a result, B-Schools are still largely viewed as a source of training in accounting, finance, and other “business” disciplines, at the chagrin of Leadership scholars.

A limitation of this traditional view is that organizations have changed dramatically, perhaps more than ever before. One unmistakable manifestation is that many jobs in accounting, finance, and computers can be outsourced to graduates overseas who are willing to work for less. A more equivocal faultfinding from employers has been that too many B-School graduates, though hard working, are not well-trained to deal with people, i.e., they lack leadership skills. Calls for effective leaders permeate the air.

If we want to produce effective leaders of tomorrow, we should teach more leadership courses today. Teaching our graduates how to lead humans at work is as important as teaching them how to manage processes, products, finances, and technology.

Simply put, employees bring to the workplace their preferences, personalities, and attitudes. Some are open-minded, some are disagreeable, some are happy, and some are grumpy. Nevertheless, it is part of leader’s job to inspire all constituents to go above and beyond. Good luck doing this without some training in the psychology of leadership.

This is not to say that other areas of business are less important. Clearly, organizations must equipoise the right mix of ingredients to produce a recipe for success. However, few things will bring a company down faster than a demotivated workforce antagonized by insolent leadership, and few other resources enable a company to prosper faster than a motivated workforce coupled with inspirational leadership.

If B-School graduates can benefit from leadership training, the next question becomes what content should be taught? There are many potential responses, but arguably, teaching research is at the crux of providing fairly reliable answers.

That is, the key to reliable answers in science is systematically studying sources of variance. In the case of leadership effectiveness, the vagueness is palpable when it comes to causes of variation because it is not all that immediately clear what is in the minds of organizational members at any given time, making it difficult to readily figure out how motivate and lead them. Research can help us better understand the causes of variation in motivation, so that we can lead employees in a more dependable fashion.

For some context, research on work motivation and leadership has been around for about 120 years. It started in the field of Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Since the mid 1960s, most of this work has moved to B-Schools, and morphed into a more organization-related discipline called Organizational Behavior. Both fields provide evidence-based answers accumulated over time, and not off-the-shelf guesswork.

Motivational speakers, self-taught pundits, and folk psychologists may be entertaining to listen to, but their vernacular about what works and what doesn’t to motivate and lead employees effectively should not be taken too seriously by organizational leaders. If business leaders make choices about work motivation initiatives and leadership styles based on flimsy data and dubious recommendations, they put their organizations at risk.

In my conversations with leaders, a common theme emerges: many did not have an opportunity to study psychology of leadership before they found themselves consumed by its demands. They often recollect how it was only after their leadership tenure ended, that they found time to study the subject that had already filled their lives for decades.

Taken together, one way for B-School to help their graduates develop leadership savoir-faire, increasingly sought-out in today’s organizations is, well, to teach more leadership.

I am trying to do my part at Wisconsin School of Business by teaching Transformational Leadership, both in the classroom and through webinars (below) that are available to all.